Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Can you hear me now?

A few weeks after we moved, I decided it was high time to get myself a local cell phone number. It seemed silly to continue using my old phone number, for three reasons. First, it would be a long-distance call from any land line in these parts. Second, on account of the three-hour time difference, I was getting wrong-number calls at 2 or 3 in the morning. Third, even moving 3000 miles away did not make the pharmacy calls stop.

So I called Verizon and requested a new number. I'd changed my number once before, upon moving to California from Ohio, and it had been a very easy process... until I received a bill with an early termination fee on it. It turned out that Verizon's California operations are completely separate from their operations anywhere else. So Verizon's everywhere-but-California office tried to charge me $175 because they were not told by Verizon's California office that I hadn't, in fact, jumped ship. Fortunately, it only took one phone call to straighten that one out.

(It seems many telecommunications companies have separate offices for California-based services. When I signed us up for land line service in California with SBC, they tried to screw us over with this very bizarre method of "credit establishment," which amounted to giving us about 7 calendar days to pay our first couple of bills and then slowly lengthening the payment timeframe. This seemed like a trap, so I called to complain. I pointed out also that I'd had SBC service in Ohio for four years and had never once been late with a payment--hadn't I already demonstrated myself as a good customer? The representative told me that SBC's California office does not have access to records for SBC's operations in any other state. I tried to enlist the help of the California Public Utilities Commission, but apparently this backwards billing method is perfectly legal in California. Your guess is as good as mine.)

Getting my Massachusetts cell phone number was also very easy--almost too easy. Then I got my first bill and noticed that not only did I have late fees for January (a month for which I'd never actually received a bill) but I was being assessed California state and local taxes on my new Massachusetts number. Naturally, I called to rectify the situation. I got the late fee erased after much convincing of the reluctant representative that, during my 6 years with Verizon, I'd never once been late with a payment, and furthermore I'd never been billed for January anyway. She made me acknowledge at least three times that they could only waive the late fee once, whereupon I reminded her each time that I would have happily paid on time, just as I'd happily been doing for six years, if I'd actually received a bill in January.

The matter of the taxes was a little more complex. It seems that when I had called to notify them of my new mailing address--prior to getting my new number--whoever took the call had not also updated the primary location where my phone was being used. So their computer system thought I was receiving mail in Massachusetts but using my phone in California. (Huh?) The person who helped me fix this was very thorough and not the least bit reluctant. I like it when that happens.

I thought all was well until Mrs. Gerbil called me from home yesterday and found that she had to dial 1 and the area code to get through. We do not live in an area with 10-digit dialing. In fact, the entire western half of Massachusetts has the same area code, so local people look at you funny if you give your phone number as 10 digits instead of 7. My new cell number was supposed to be a South Hadley cell number, but it obviously was outside our local calling area. Our local calling area is pretty big, but it's definitely not the entire western half of Massachusetts. What gives?

So I called Verizon and asked where my new number was based. Imagine my surprise when I found out that it was based in Huntington--which is forty-five minutes away! I wasn't all that attached to my new number, and it seemed silly to keep a non-local number that I'd received when I'd asked for a local number, so I asked for a number that was really and truly local. This time I looked the exchange up in the phone book just to make sure. The representative magnanimously volunteered to waive the $10 new-number charge. It all seemed too easy. But we'll see when the bill comes.

That is, if it comes.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


My aforementioned temp assignment is at a local hospital's VNA and hospice program. (VNA, for those not in the know, stands for "visiting nurse association.") This assignment has involved a lot of personal "firsts," like operating a Pitney-Bowes postage meter, stamping stacks of incoming mail with the date of receipt (which makes me feel oddly East German), and scheduling a UPS pickup.

This particular UPS pickup was an authorized return, and when I provided the representative with the return tracking number, she impressed me by telling me what company I was with. She did not impress me, however, with her reading.

"This is for the VNA and... um... ho-spice?" she asked.

I wonder--is Ho Spice like the Fifth Beatle?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Reality check

I officially started temping this past week. My current assignment is as a receptionist for a local hospital's visiting nurse and hospice program. I am reminded of the bridge in the Barenaked Ladies song "Never is Enough," wherein they sing

You get your Ph.D.
How happy you will be
When you get a job at Wendy's
And are honored with Employee of the Month

I'm not flipping burgers. However, I'm still not getting enough brain-cell exercise. I transfer calls, I open the mail, I operate the freaking awesome postage meter (this is the highlight of my day), and I sit around and stare at stuff. But hey. It's a job.

And I did actually learn something, which is that temp work is a fantastic cure for perfectionism. I will be the first to admit that I am a perfectionist. Many things have made a dent in my perfectionism, mostly having to do with grades which, contrary to my expectations, did not actually bring on the Apocalypse. But old habits die hard, you know, and I want to be the best damn temp there ever was.

Sadly, my efforts to be Super Temp were quickly thwarted. It is the nature of temporary work not to be able to get all the information one needs before diving in... especially when one is filling in for someone who's been doing the same job for almost two decades. Temps are expected to screw things up. (Indeed, I got blamed for doing something I couldn't possibly have done, as I was in the bathroom at the time.) And when there are pre-existing chronic communication problems in the workplace, the whole thing is even worse.

This is, like, totally awesome exposure therapy.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

On authority

One of the formative events of Mrs. Gerbil's and my relationship was her accompaniment of my audition for the Newtown Chamber Orchestra's Young Musician Competition when we were but wee high school sophomores. I auditioned with the first movement of Vivaldi's Spring. Alas, I did not win (though a few months later I did win the Youth Orchestra of Bucks County's soloist competition, with the third movement of Mozart's Concerto #5); but we had a lot of fun.

As a thank-you to Mrs. Gerbil for her mad piano skills, my parents and I gave her a CD of The Compleat Four Seasons, featuring none other than Patrick Stewart reading the sonnets which the concerti illustrate. (Didn't know that the Seasons are based on sonnets that may--or may not--have been written by Vivaldi himself? Check it out, yo.)

Oddly enough, it took me nearly thirteen years to listen to this CD myself. But I finally did the other day, and I have to say that Patrick Stewart truly has the most wonderful voice. Violinist Arnie Roth isn't half bad himself; but oh, Patrick Stewart is marvelous.

I would do anything Patrick Stewart told me to do.

Okay, fine, if Patrick Stewart told me to jump off a bridge, I wouldn't.

At least, I probably wouldn't.

But I'd do pretty much anything else.


(Oh, and yes, I own that Picard action figure pictured above. Remind me sometime to tell you about the red felt carrying case I fashioned for him and his accessories.)

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Blessings and curses

This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, but western Massachusetts has a much more reasonable cost of living than does the Bay Area. For example, I bought a gallon of store-brand skim milk the other day at Stop & Shop for $3.69. A month ago we were buying store-brand skim milk from Safeway for $4.59 per gallon. (The gerb demands a lot of milk these days, so milk prices make me a lot happier than they probably ought to.)

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is also a lot more concerned about health insurance than is the State of California. California's approach seems to be "let's wait until something goes horribly wrong, then get medieval on some asses" (as in the Blue Cross recission fiasco). Massachusetts' approach, by contrast, seems to be "let's see how much ass-medievalizing we can prevent." Recent legislation requires pretty much every resident to have his or her own health insurance--with steep monthly fines to deter potential law-breakers. Most employers are required to provide at least some kind of health benefit. There is even a state agency, the Commonwealth Connector, via which one can obtain insurance if one can't get anything through one's employer.

Unfortunately, the requirements placed on employers are pretty vague in terms of what constitutes minimum coverage. Mrs. Gerbil (who has found part-time work) and I (with the promise of temp work) have both been offered extraordinarily crappy coverage through our new respective employers. The plan which I've been offered has a very low maximum annual inpatient benefit which stands an excellent chance of being exhausted by the birth of the gerb--assuming, of course, no complications. The outpatient benefit doesn't cover preventive care, and the plan certainly doesn't cover mental health treatment.

Mrs. Gerbil has a choice of three coverage levels, two of which will only pay for 5 outpatient doctor's visits and 3 emergency room visits (presumably excluding ER services that lead to inpatient admission) per year. WTF? Now, I'm all for getting people hooked up with outpatient providers instead of using the ER for primary care, but if you've used up your five (again, WTF?) outpatient visits and you get a sinus infection, the only way to get the treatment covered seems to be to go to the ER. ('Course, the ER deductible might be more than the out-of-pocket cost of an office visit...) Again, there's no coverage for mental health treatment, and maternity care is subject to the same limits as other conditions.

My stint as a managed-care monkey gave me a very solid lesson in what sorts of questions one should ask about benefit design. However, it also taught me what constitutes a reasonable coverage limit. Naturally, I decided to call both of these insurance companies and press them a little on what exactly they cover and exclude.

First I called the plan I was offered. I waited on hold a long, long time and was eventually bumped into voicemail. The outgoing message promised a call back within 24 hours. I was not surprised when 26 hours went by with no call back, so I waited on hold some more and finally spoke to a very nice representative who really knew her stuff. She informed me that prenatal care is not considered preventive care (after all, pregnancy is a sickness), and therefore it is covered. She explained the various components of the inpatient benefit, the process by which one obtains reimbursement for prescriptions, and how to get documentation of prior coverage so as to be exempt from the pre-existing condition clause.

Verdict: plan sucks, but not as much as it could.

Then I called the plan Mrs. Gerbil was offered. I asked whether the outpatient visit limit also applied to prenatal care. The representative confirmed that it did. "That's amazing," I said, "and not in a good way. I'm in my third trimester, and even with a perfectly normal pregnancy I have to go to the midwife every two weeks!" The representative made an ambiguous little noise. I decided not to tell her that once I reach nine months, I'll have to go every single week. Instead I asked whether well-baby care and immunizations are covered, and if so, are those also limited to five visits. The answers: yes and yes. (The American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendations include no fewer than seven well-baby visits in the first year of life.)

Then I posed a more complicated question. Massachusetts has a fairly extensive mental health parity law. This plan has no mental health coverage whatsoever, so how is it exempt? The representative put me on hold, which I knew to mean that she had to ask her supervisor. When she came back on the line, she said that her supervisor (ha! I was right) told her it is because of the "delivery state." It didn't sound like the representative really understood this herself, but I happen to know from my all-too-recent managed-care-monkey days that exemption from parity laws depends on the state where the policy is written (and not where the patient lives) and how it is funded. (I swear, I wasn't trying to fake her out or anything! I just wanted to know!)

Verdict: plan sucks far more than expected.

And this, my friends, is reason #392 why I support universal health care.